As usual, in the occupied territories, the occasion was marked by an official holiday, celebrated by workers taking the day off, while the Union of Palestinian Workers released updated figures and information on unemployment rates and the plight of Palestinian labourers.
Ironically, a holiday is the last thing on the wish-lists of many Palestinian workers. To the dismay of labourers, May Day this year came while Israel maintained its ban on cement shipments to the blockaded Gaza Strip, effectively paralysing around 70 construction-related professions, and rendering 70,000 workers jobless.
According to the General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, unemployment in the Strip has reached 60 percent, with some 213,000 workers unemployed, and seven out of 10 Gazan workers living below the poverty line.
The story of Palestinian workers intensified after the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. As the Palestinian economy was severed from the economies of Egypt and Jordan, unemployment in the newly occupied territories soared.
Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defence minister at the time, realised the potential threat posed by thousands of angry, unemployed youth, and oversaw the gradual opening of the Israeli labour market to Palestinian workers.
By 1972, one in every four Palestinian labourers was working in Israel. Almost all families had one member or more working there - my grandfather and four uncles did - and to date, Palestinians still recall the daily routines of those times. As they remember, a significant portion of the population had their weekly holidays on a Saturday, the Jewish holiday, instead of the Muslim holiday on a Friday.
Falafel stands opened at 3am for workers heading to Israel, and a good breakfast was essential to help them endure the long hours of waiting in queues at military checkpoints. Jobs offered to Palestinians were menial and unpopular among Israelis, notably in the field of construction.
To earn a livelihood, Palestinian workers were forced to build houses and highways for Jewish squatters on lands they themselves had been ejected from less than three decades earlier. Still, they were not attacked or charged with collaboration by the Fedayeen Palestinian guerrillas. And, after all, alternatives were few and far between.
Pay offered by Israeli employers was somehow better than the salaries of civil servants working for the ruling Israeli administration in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Masons were earning more than teachers and doctors. As a result, and despite the harsh working conditions, large numbers of Palestinians favoured work in Israel over education, leaving themselves at the mercy of Israeli measures and the whims of the market.
|This situation continued until the second intifada, to which Israel responded by collectively punishing Palestinians and closing the borders, dealing a heavy blow to Palestinian workers|
The day of reckoning didn't delay much. The Palestinian economy was becoming totally dependent on that of the occupation, and although the Israeli economy owed much of its prosperity to Palestinian labourers, in 1983 Israel began requiring Palestinians wishing to work in Israel to obtain a special work permit. Known among Palestinians as "magnetic cards", permits served as another instrument in Israel's toolbox of repression and extortion.
The number of permits issued fluctuated according to oscillating levels of regional tension, political changes and the capricious Israeli desire for punitive measures. Furthermore, the number of permits granted to Palestinian workers diminished gradually, as Israel sought to replace Palestinians with East Asian and African nationals who were perceived as cheaper and unlikely to engage in resistance.
This situation continued until the second intifada, to which Israel responded by collectively punishing Palestinians and closing the borders, dealing a heavy blow to Palestinian workers. Tens of thousands of labourers found themselves between a rock and a hard place, forced to return to an economy weakened as a result of Israel's total domination and punitive policies. At the same time, they had missed the opportunity for higher education or a stable job with the newly established Palestinian Authority.
For workers from the Gaza Strip, the blow was irreversible, especially with the Israeli redeployment out of Gaza and the desire to disengage from the troubles of the heavily populated area. The decade-long siege that continues to rage has made the situation even worse. Severe power shortages lasting two-thirds of the day means that even employed labourers were in reality unemployed two days out of three.
Restrictions on movement prevented new graduates from seeking jobs abroad and, as of this year, 75,000 qualified Gazan graduates are unemployed according to the Palestinian ministry of labour; in a territory where literacy rates are higher than 97 percent.
|Palestinians alone are entitled to determine the price they are ready to pay for their liberation|
But in the West Bank, Palestinian workers returned slowly to the Israeli labour market, again with Israel keen to end the intifada. Once more, they were held hostage to Israeli grudges and vindictive measures, and there has recently been a surge in stabbings in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
There remains disagreement between the Israeli army and the Israel Security Agency, known as Shin Bet. While the former advocates easing restrictions on Palestinians to lure them into submission, the latter favours collective punishment and the reinstitution of the presumably successful tactics used against the second intifada.
Furthermore, there are currently 27,000 Palestinians working in Israeli industrial zones in West Bank settlements. In addition to subjecting these workers to dehumanising security checks and extortion for work permits, Israeli hasbara propagandists use them to discredit BDS - the boycott movement that Israel perceives as a rising threat to its international status.
The Israeli claim is that boycotting settlement products threatens the jobs of Palestinian workers. These claims, however, are refuted by Israeli employers who admit to being forced by the government to sack Palestinian workers in order to discredit the BDS campaign. They are also contradicted by the significant number of BDS supporters among Palestinian citizens, scholars, trade and work unions, factions and even PA officials.
After all, it is Palestinians, and Palestinians alone who are entitled to determine the price they are ready to pay for their liberation.
Belal Dabour is a Palestinian doctor in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @